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New Light on Yoga

From loincloths to leotards, yoga has come a long way in 5,000 years. But is yoga as we know it really that old?

By Anne Cushman

But as the Sritattvanidhi proves, the Mysore royal family's enthusiasm for yoga went back at least a century earlier. The Sritattvanidhi includes instructions for 122 yoga poses, illustrated by stylized drawings of an Indian man in a topknot and loincloth. Most of these poses—which include handstands, backbends, foot-behind-the-head poses, Lotus variations, and rope exercises—are familiar to modern practitioners (although most of the Sanskrit names are different from the ones they are known by today). But they are far more elaborate than anything depicted in other pre-twentieth-century texts. The Sritattvanidhi, as Norman Sjoman instantly realized, was a missing link in the fragmented history of hatha yoga.

"This is the first textual evidence we have of a flourishing, well-developed asana system existing before the twentieth century—and in academic systems, textual evidence is what counts," says Sjoman. "The manuscript points to tremendous yogic activity going on in that time period—and having that much textual documentation indicates a practice tradition at least 50 to 100 years older."

Potpourri Lineage

Unlike earlier texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Sritattvanidhi doesn't focus on the meditative or philosophical aspects of yoga; it doesn't chart the nadis and chakras (the channels and hubs of subtle energy); it doesn't teach pPranayama (breathing exercises) or bandhas (energy locks). It's the first known yogic text devoted entirely to asana practice—a prototypical "yoga workout."

Hatha yoga students may find this text of interest simply as a novelty—a relic of a "yoga boom" of two centuries ago. (Future generations may pore with equal fascination over "Buns of Steel" yoga videos.) But buried in Sjoman's somewhat abstruse commentary are some claims that shed new light on the history of hatha yoga—and, in the process, may call into question some cherished myths.

According to Sjoman, the Sritattvanidhi—or the broader yoga tradition it reflects—appears to be one of the sources for the yoga techniques taught by Krishnamacharya and passed on by Iyengar and Jois. In fact, the manuscript is listed as a resource in the bibliography of Krishnamacharya's very first book on yoga, which was published—under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore—in the early 1930s. The Sritattvanidhi depicts dozens of poses that are depicted in Light on Yoga and practiced as part of the Ashtanga vinyasa series, but that don't show up in any older texts.

But while the Sritattvanidhi extends the written history of the asanas a hundred years further back than has previously been documented, it does not support the popular myth of a monolithic, unchanging tradition of yoga poses. Rather, Sjoman says that the yoga section of the Sritattvanidhi is itself clearly a compilation, drawing on techniques from a wide range of disparate traditions. In addition to variations on poses from earlier yogic texts, it includes such things as the rope exercises used by Indian wrestlers and the danda push-ups developed at the vyayamasalas, the indigenous Indian gymnasiums. (In the twentieth century, these push-ups begin to show up as Chaturanga Dandasana, part of the Sun Salutation). In the Sritattvanidhi, these physical techniques are for the first time given yogic names and symbolism and incorporated into the body of yogic knowledge. The text reflects a practice tradition that is dynamic, creative, and syncretistic, rather than fixed and static. It does not limit itself to the asana systems described in more ancient texts: Instead, it builds on them.

In turn, says Sjoman, Krishnamacharya drew on the Sritattvanidhi tradition and blended it with a number of other sources, as Sjoman discovered by reading the various books by Krishnamacharya in the Maharaja's library. Krishnamacharya's first writings, which cited the Sritattvanidhi as a source, also featured vinyasa (sequences of poses synchronized with the breath) that Krishnamacharya said he had learned from a yoga teacher in Tibet. Over time, these vinyasa were gradually systematized further—Krishnamacharya's later writings more closely resemble the vinyasa forms taught by Pattabhi Jois. "Therefore it seems logical to assume that the form we find in the series of asanas with Pattabhi Jois was developed during Krishnamacharya's period of teaching," writes Sjoman. "It was not an inherited format." To dedicated Ashtanga practitioners, this claim borders on the heretical.

Along the way, claims Sjoman, Krishnamacharya also seems to have incorporated into the yogic canon specific techniques drawn from British gymnastics. In addition to being a patron of yoga, the Mysore royal family was a great patron of gymnastics. In the early 1900s, they hired a British gymnast to teach the young princes. When Krishnamacharya was brought to the palace to start a yoga school in the 1920s, his schoolroom was the former palace gymnastics hall, complete with wall ropes and other gymnastic aids, which Krishnamacharya used as yoga props. He was also given access to the Western gymnastics manual written by the Mysore Palace gymnasts. This manual—excerpted in Sjoman's book—gives detailed instructions and illustrations for physical maneuvers that Sjoman argues quickly found their way into Krishnamacharya's teachings, and passed on to Iyengar and Jois: for example, lolasana, the cross-legged jumpback that helps link together the vinyasa in the Ashtanga series, and Iyengar's technique of walking the hands backward down a wall into a back arch.

Modern hatha yoga draws on British gymnastics? The yoga of Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Krishnamacharya influenced by a potpourri that included Indian wrestlers? These are claims guaranteed to send a frisson of horror up the limber spine of any yoga fundamentalist. But according to Sjoman, his book is meant not to debunk yoga—but to pay tribute to it as a dynamic, growing, and ever-changing art.

Krishnamacharya's genius, says Sjoman, is that he was able to meld these different practices in the fire of yoga philosophy. "All those things are Indianized, brought into the purview of the yoga system," Sjoman says. After all, he points out, Patanjali's only requirement for asana was that it be "steady and comfortable." "This is a functional definition of asana," he says. "What makes something yoga is not what is done, but how it is done."

This realization, he says, can be liberating, paving the way for a greater appreciation of the role of individual intuition and creativity in the development of yoga. "Krishnamacharya was a great innovator and experimenter—that's one of the things that gets missed in the tendency of Indians to make hagiographies of their teachers and to look for ancient lineages," Sjoman says. "The experimental and creative abilities of both Krishnamacharya and Iyengar are very much overlooked."

Yoga's Banyan Tree

Of course, Sjoman's scholarship is just one perspective on the Mysore Palace lineage. His research and conclusions may be flawed; the information he has uncovered is open to multiple interpretations.

But his theories point to a reality that you don't have to probe very deeply into yoga history to confirm: There really is no one monolithic yoga tradition.

Rather, yoga is like a twisted old banyan tree, whose hundreds of branches each support a full load of texts, teachers, and traditions—often influencing one another, just as often contradicting one another. ("Be celibate," admonishes one scripture. "Get enlightened through sex," urges another.) Like snapshots of a dance, different texts freeze and capture different aspects of a living, breathing, changing tradition.

This realization can be unsettling at first. If there's no one way to do things—well, then how do we know if we're doing them right? Some of us may long for a definitive archaeological discovery: say, a terra-cotta figure of a yogi in Triangle Pose, circa 600 B.C., that will tell us once and for all how far apart the feet should be.

But on another level it's liberating to realize that yoga, like life itself, is infinitely creative, expressing itself in a multitude of forms, recreating itself to meet the needs of different times and cultures. It's liberating to realize that the yoga poses are not fossils—they're alive and bursting with possibility.

That's not to say that honoring tradition is unimportant. It's vital to honor the common goal that has united yogis for centuries: the quest for awakening. For thousands of years, yogis have sought to contact directly the luminous source of all being; and for hatha yogis in particular, the vehicle for touching the infinite spirit has been the finite human body. Every time we step on the mat, we can honor tradition by "yoking"—the original meaning of the word "yoga"—our purpose with that of the ancient sages.

We can also honor the forms of yoga—the specific asanas—as probes for exploring our own particular forms, for testing the limits and stretching the possibilities of the bodies we have been given. In doing so, we can draw on the experience of yogis that have come before us—the wisdom that's gradually accrued over time about working with the body's subtle energies by means of physical practices. Without this heritage—whatever its sources—we're left to reinvent afresh 5,000 years of innovation.

Yoga asks us to walk a razor's edge, to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to a particular pose, while fully understanding that on another level, the pose is arbitrary and irrelevant. We can surrender to the poses the way we surrender to incarnation in general—letting ourselves pretend, for a while, that the game we are playing is real, that our bodies are who we really are. But if we cling to the form of the poses as ultimate truth, we miss the point. The poses were born from the practice of yogis who looked inside themselves—who experimented, who innovated, and who shared their discoveries with others. If we're afraid to do the same, we lose the spirit of yoga.

Ultimately, the ancient texts agree on one thing: True yoga is found not in texts, but in the heart of the practitioner. The texts are just the footprints of the elephant, the droppings of the deer. The poses are just the ever-changing manifestations of our life energy; what matters is our devotion to awakening that energy and expressing it in physical form. Yoga is both old and new—it's inconceivably ancient, and yet fresh every time we come to it.

Anne Cushman is coauthor of From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India.

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Reader Comments

Pradnya

I loved the way in which Cushman has addressed the topic. It is light hearted while at the same time effectively bringing out the dynamic nature of the practice of yoga

sue woolley

A most refreshing and honest article. Having practiced yoga for 35 years, I have seen how it is constantly re-inventing itself, moving with the times one might say, without losing its essence. This is one of the miracles of yoga, that it can sway with the wind, yet be grounded in the unchanging.

sue woolley

A most refreshing and honest article. Having practiced yoga for 35 years, I have seen how it is constantly re-inventing itself, moving with the times one might say, without losing its essence. This is one of the miracles of yoga, that it can sway with the wind, yet be grounded in the unchanging.

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